My Phone Call with Shooter: A Christopher McDonald interview

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I’m scheduled for a phone interview with Christopher McDonald at 9 am. Probably best known to those of my generation as Shooter McGavin, Happy Gilmore’s preening nemesis who likes to repeat his favorite joke about spending more time in the sand than David Hasselhoff, McDonald is the archetypal “that guy,” a character actor with 160-plus IMDB credits who’s more recognizable as his characters than himself, a household face if not a name. He specializes in pompous with an air of menace, plays a lot of newscasters and lawyers. It’s that voice, the kind of boomy baritone you imagine radio guys practicing in their bedrooms, that gives everything he says an air of the theatrical. On this particular week, he’s promoting Lucky Guy, a play Nora Ephron wrote that she was working on up until her death last June. Based on Ephron’s experiences as a New York Post reporter in the “scandal-and-graffiti-ridden New York” of the early 80s, Tom Hanks stars as tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, with McDonald supporting as Eddie Hayes, a litigator and “New York personality,” known for his expensive suits (above, right). The production just extended its run through July.

At 10 till nine I get a phone call. “Hey, it’s Chris. I was wondering if we could push the interview. I’m in the middle of trying to get a library card.”

Interviews almost never happen on time, but as far as excuses go, that’s a new one. That he called me himself, ahead of schedule, is also anomalous. I tell him sure, I’ll call him back at 9:15. At 9:17, I call him back from my Skype account and get his voicemail. As I’m leaving the message I get a call back on my cell. “Hey, man, what gives? You were supposed to call me three minutes ago.”

There’s that air of menace. I can tell he’s not really angry, but I can also sense that if he was, he and that voice could probably make me piss my pants. I tell him I called him back on a different number so I could record. “Are you in any way affiliated with the actor Nick Mancuso?” he asks, probably the weirdest question I’ve ever been asked.

“Uh… not that I’m aware of.” Nick Mancuso does sound like it could be a bizarro world pseudonym for Vince Mancini. It turns out my Skype number shows up as “Nick Mancuso” on Christopher McDonald’s cell phone. The fact that one famous character actor’s phone mistakes me for another is bizarre in such a wildly esoteric way that I don’t know what to do with it. Future prank call potential, maybe?

The menace slowly drains from his voice as I start to ask him questions, aided by the fact that he’s talking to me in slightly hushed tones from the basement of the New York Public Library. He’s already read Eddie Hayes’ book, Mouthpiece, and apparently he’s looking for more books set roughly in the same time period as Lucky Guy. I’d been planning to ask him what character actors do with all their down time, since I’ve always assumed they have a lot, what with all the time between jobs, and working a few days here, a few days there. But now that seems rude in light of the fact that he’s doing full-on library research for a part that he’s already won and is already in the midst of playing. Clearly, the guy takes his job pretty seriously. I tread water for a while, waiting for the chance to ask the first thing I wanted to ask, which is how often he gets asked if he eats pieces of shit for breakfast.

“Every day,” he says, “every day,” with only the faintest hint of melancholy.

We talk more about Eddie Hayes, and Hayes’s 700 shirts and closet full of hand made shoes. It sounds as if much of Eddie Hayes’ advice to McDonald on how to play the character was sartorial. McDonald mentions that riding the subway to the set in an expensive suit like Hayes would wear really helped him to get into the character.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, time out: Shooter McGavin is riding the New York City subway wearing a flashy designer suit? How does that not draw a crowd?

“If you keep your head down and avoid eye contact, no one really bothers you,” he says. I realize New Yorkers are jaded, but this seems insane. Imagine you’re riding the subway and a guy in a snazzy suit catches your eye, and you look closer and the guy is Shooter McGavin. The only way I can imagine this not drawing a crowd is that people must be waiting to see how the rest of the prank plays out.

I ask about other roles people recognize him from, and he brings up Quiz Show, in which he played Twenty-One host Jack Barry. I ask him if he thinks Quiz Show is interesting to look back on, given that it was about a staged game show that became such a scandal that it spawned congressional hearings, in light of the current state of reality television, in which faked weddings are pretty much standard practice and no one seems to bat an eye.

Quiz Show really captured the innocence of that time, and it really marked the end of that innocence. People felt betrayed. And now that’s all gone. People know it’s entertainment,” he says.

It turns out he even has some personal experience with the genre, having appeared on an episode of the now-defunct Gene Simmons Family Jewels. I haven’t seen that particular episode, as I try to subject myself to the sight of Gene Simmons’s nightmarish goblin face as little as possible. Suffice it to say, McDonald appeared as part of a storyline that was cooked up in advance, that was made to seem serendipitous within the conceit of the show. Turns out Christopher McDonald and Gene Simmons are old friends. I try to dig for an answer as to how this came to be, but the answer isn’t as interesting as the premise, as if it could be. LA is weird.

I ask if he was into acting growing up, and when he got into it, and he pauses, sounding for the first time like he’s answering a question he’s not used to being asked. I get the feeling people that don’t think of character actors as having childhoods, that because we’re so used to seeing them in similar roles, that some reptilian part of our brains just assumes they came into the world fully formed, as newscasters, or wild-eyed drifters.

“I got into acting as a sophomore in college, changed my major from pre-med to English. I told my parents I wanted to be an actor, which they weren’t too happy about at the time. They wanted to have that doctor son and get free medical care for life. It was fine, eventually, but I think they were really into the idea of being able to say their son was a doctor.”

“My dad was the principal of my high school, which was interesting. I tried to do the rebellious thing for a while, and quickly realized that wasn’t working out for me.”

I ask who the most eccentric person he’s ever worked with. “Shelly Winters,” he says, who was still acting every bit the femme fatale when they worked together on Gideon, when she was 79. I ask about otherwise difficult working experiences, of which every character actor must’ve had many.

“Once I was working with a young actress who was very green. In the scene, she was supposed to throw her drink in my face. Only when we did it, she ended up throwing the entire glass, which hit me in the face and cut my lip. I’m like, ‘Really? You couldn’t control your hand enough to know which thing you were supposed to hold onto?'”

On his current goals: “I’m trying to get a national commercial now, something like ‘What’s in your wallet?’ you know like Alec Baldwin has, a little work on the side to put my kids through college.'”

We end up talking for 20 minutes, and by the end, I feel like I’ve broken through the “now who’s this asshole?” reaction that most celebrities understandably have with me, especially over the phone. Hell, I think we’ve very nearly established a rapport. Pleased with myself, I hang up and click pause on my voice recorder, which has been running faithfully this entire time (I always look down periodically to make sure the needle is moving). Aaaand… nothing. I click the pause and stop buttons ten more times, shuttling between the two. Still nothing. Eventually the app shuts down, and when I start it up again, guess what? No interview. Nice going, jackass, I think to myself.

Man is that a shitty feeling. A guy takes time out of his day to talk to you about his childhood and the most eccentric actors he’s ever worked with and blah blah blah, and answer your stupid questions about eating pieces of shit for breakfast, and then what? The whole thing ends up getting paraphrased and boiled down to just the two or three questions you can specifically remember. It was gonna be so great, you guys. Alas. I don’t have any proof, but I’m convinced Nick Mancuso had something to do with this.